The Labour Party originated in the late 19th century. It responded to the demand for a new political party to represent the interests of the urban working class, many of whose male members gained the right to vote with the passage of the Representation of the People Act in 1884. The Liberal Party had endorsed some trade-union sponsored candidates. But several socialist groups wanted a distinctly working class, socialist party. Among these were the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the reformist Fabian Society, the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and the Scottish Labour Party. This led to the formation, in February 1900, of the Labour Representation Committee, with the backing of the British Trade Union Congress. The consolidation of a distinct Labour group in Parliament gave rise to the Labour Party. The Labour Party was divided over WW1 and the Russian Revolution, but by 1922 it displaced the Liberals as Britain’s second largest party. The LP went on to form six governments in the 20th century. Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 government enacted Keynesian economic policies. It nationalized major industries and utilities including the Bank of England, coal mining, the steel industry, electricity, gas, and inland transport (including railways, road haulage and canals). It implemented the “cradle to grave” welfare state conceived by the economist William Beveridge. To this day, most people in the United Kingdom see the 1948 creation of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) under health minister Aneurin Bevan, which provided publicly funded medical treatment for all, as Labour’s proudest achievement. Attlee’s government also recognized the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, followed by Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) the following year. At a secret meeting in January 1947, Attlee and six cabinet ministers, including Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, decided to proceed with the development of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme, in opposition to the pacifist and anti-nuclear mass base inside the Labour Party.
The global post-war boom ended in the 1970s. British welfare state capitalism came under a growing assault. Wage controls imposed by a Labour Party government alienated unions. Margaret Thatcher’s Tories took advantage, won government and escalated the attacks. Denis Healy and the Labour right wing expelled radical socialists from the party, including the Militant Tendency in 1983. The anti-working class measures of Thatcher were kept in place by Labour Party Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair embraced American foreign policy, even to the extent of participating in the war on Iraq, premised on the lies about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Blair’s “New Labour” set the stage for mass working class alienation towards the entire political establishment, including against the corporate agenda of the European Union.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, united opposition to the depredations of late capitalism. Over 400,000 joined the Labour Party to elevate Corbyn to Leader and to fight privatization, growing inequality and racism. Unfortunately, Corbyn’s movement inside the party made some serious errors that enabled the Blairite right wing to undermine and ultimately remove Corbyn. One of the hammers used against Corbyn is the allegation of rampant anti-Semitism in the BLP. Let’s be crystal clear on this point: Jeremy Corbyn is not anti-Semitic. He has a lifelong history of fighting racism in all its forms. It is a disgrace that he has been suspended merely for saying that the report into anti-Semitism inside the Labour Party by the Equality and Human Rights Commission “overstated” the problem. A typically mild understatement from Corbyn!
This is not to dismiss the seriousness of anti-Semitism, or the need to combat it wherever it arises, alongside Islamophobia, and all forms of racism. The reality is that the investigation, the report, and Corbyn’s suspension have little to do with anti-Semitism and a lot more to do with the Blairites’ determined campaign against Corbynism and the potential it represented for a very different type of Labour Party.
Current Leader Keir Starmer’s decision to suspend Corbyn on October 29, 2020 is the latest maneuver in a five-year war to reverse the progress represented by Corbyn’s two-time victory as Labour leader, and his success in the 2017 general election. Corbyn as Leader attracted hundreds of thousands of new members to Labour on the basis of his anti-austerity program. Thousands turned out to the mass rallies organized during the leadership campaigns; young people literally hung from window ledges to get a glimpse of the man advancing ideas like free education and nationalization of the railways. Few sights in the last decade were more terrifying to the ruling rich and their representatives in the PLP and Labour Party machine than that of trade unionists and young people side by side chanting “oh Jeremy Corbyn”. This movement threatened to undo the efforts of the capitalist class to tame the Labour Party – which was, after all, established by trade unions and socialists.
It is this fear that motivated the victory for Keir Starmer as Corbyn’s successor. Starmer is a willing tool to complete the process of killing the anti-austerity surge. And his reign so far has been a downward spiral for Labour – from suspensions of Corbyn supporters at every opportunity, to talk of “national unity” with Boris Johnson’s government in the face of its cataclysmic failure to deal with Covid-19 effectively. It is clear that Starmer is desperate to crush every remnant of Corbynism in Labour.
But the question remains: How was it possible to go from a position of strength, to near-total defeat for the left in Labour? It is largely a consequence of serious failures by the leaders of the Corbyn movement from the start.
Firstly, Corbyn and the Socialist Campaign Group were completely unprepared in win the leadership of the Labour Party. Very few people expected, at first, that they would be successful. It was partly due to the change in the leadership election rules which allowed non-members to vote. More importantly, the mass anger in society, which Corbyn expressed, propelled him into the leadership position. Despite the landslide victory and the explosive increase in Labour Party membership – becoming the largest political party in Europe – this huge potential strength was never utilized by Corbyn and his supporters. It was clear that the Blairite wing, as political representatives of the capitalist class, were not going to tolerate any meaningful change in a leftward direction. The mistaken idea that the Blairites could be won over by “logical” or “moral” arguments led to multiple capitulations by Corbyn to the right. No matter how many peace gestures were offered to the right wing, all were rejected by the pro-capitalist LP MPs who didn’t want political unity on the basis of Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies. Unfortunately, the Corbyn leadership didn’t learn this lesson. In fact, it did the opposite. It retreated further in the hope of appeasing the Blairites. The NDP Socialist Caucus needs to grasp this point. Right wing social democracy will never settle for anything less than total control. They must be removed.
Another important error was Corbyn’s retreat from his longstanding opposition to the imperialist, undemocratic European Union. It was clear in the 2014 EU parliamentary election, when Labour won 20 seats, the Conservatives won 19, and the right wing nationalist UKIP gained 24, that the left had to provide socialist leadership to Brexit, or stand back and watch the right wing dominate the issue. The EU not only imposes austerity budgets (just ask the Greek workers); it bars the expansion of public services and public ownership with a corporate bill of rights, not unlike NAFTA. Of course, the Blairites are fine with that. Their loyalty is to big business, not to the working class. The Blairites got Corbyn to agree to proposing a Second Referendum, to reverse the popular mandate to quit the EU. That shift decimated Corbyn’s support in the north of England, leading to the electoral defeat in 2019. So said John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow Finance Minister.
Two leadership elections, two general elections, multiple conferences and policy initiatives were all sabotaged by the right wing. A leaked report showed that Labour Party staff actively undermined Corbyn and left MPs during the 2019 general election. Nonetheless, Corbyn resigned as leader, accepting blame for the losses. Many on the left concluded that a moderate leader is needed to beat the Tories. Keir Starmer’s victory as leader was the start of the process of a shift back to the right. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the leftist who ran against Starmer, was fired as shadow education secretary very quickly. Since then, multiple Corbyn-supporting MPs have been removed from positions.
What resistance has there been to this purge? The union UNITE cut 10 percent of its funding to the Labour Party. Unfortunately, it demanded nothing in return for the remaining 90%! None of this was inevitable. If the hundreds of thousands of Labour members who supported Corbyn had been mobilized, not just to knock on doors at election time, but in active campaigns to win the support for the already popular policies in the Corbyn election manifestos, this could have impacted on the general election results in 2017 and 2019, leading to a Corbyn victory. If the policy of mandatory re-selection (candidate nomination) had been implemented, which simply means democratic control by party members over who represents them in an election, the Blairite MPs could have been removed en-masse. Left-wing and Corbyn-supporting candidates could have replaced them. If Corbyn had gone further than just personally supporting strikes, and had mobilized the full force of the labour movement to give solidarity in a concrete way to workers in struggle, there could have been workers’ action in support of Corbyn’s policies which would have put huge pressure on the Blairites and the entire capitalist class.
Far from drawing these conclusions, the Labour left leaders, even now, continue to make the same mistakes. The Socialist Campaign group of left Labour MPs says they “firmly oppose the decision to suspend Jeremy” and “will work tirelessly for his reinstatement.” Momentum said “this suspension risks politicizing Labour’s response to anti-Semitism.” Both Corbyn and John McDonnell appealed for Labour members to “remain calm”. Not surprisingly, many Corbynistas have quit Labour in the months following Starmer’s election as leader.
How will the suspension be resisted? Through the very same structures which initiated and carried out the witch hunt? Can the Blairites who control the levers of power inside Labour be convinced to do the “right thing”?
Clearly, there is no chance of a “fair trial” or for an independent investigation of Corbyn in the Labour Party. Even if Corbyn is reinstated, on what basis will it be? Must he apologize for “being an anti-Semite”, or promise to never disagree with Starmer in the future? This is not the best option.
A national conference of resistance is urgently needed to bring together trade unionists, socialists and campaigners to discuss a way forward. Corbyn and the other Labour left MPs should initiate such an event – if they do, it could be huge. If they are unwilling, workers and young people can do it themselves. Trade unions could also have an important role to play. They should immediately suspend their affiliation fees to Labour in response to Corbyn’s suspension from membership and embark on an urgent process of democratic consultation throughout their ranks on the way forward for working class political representation. These discussions will need to address the obvious question of how a new mass left party based on struggle could be formed. The struggles workers and young people are engaging in now, and the even bigger ones to come, need a political voice. There is a crying need for a political movement that can unite these struggles around a program for real change, for a program that can meet the needs of all for a better world.
The last five years have shown that half-way measures will not succeed. The political, economic and social crises have only increased since Corbyn was first elected. The Covid-19 pandemic, the economic depression and the environmental crisis have exposed the failures of capitalism. Every day, in Britain, across Canada, and around the world, workers and young people are drawing conclusions that this system must be fundamentally changed.